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How green infrastructure can enhance a community's health and well-being
What happens when a plan for a new city sewer tunnel turns into a plan for a pond? The answer is not just less concrete and more green space. When communities choose “green” ways to manage parks, recreation facilities and stormwater, they’re also creating new opportunities for health and well-being for local residents. By pioneering green infrastructure improvements — from permeable pavement to rain gardens, bioswales and ponds — cities are managing the effects of a changing climate and improving residents’ quality of life in the process.
The Power of Parks and Public Spaces
A community’s parks have immense potential to improve people’s lives. As Karl Schrass, director of conservation at NRPA, describes them, “Done right, parks are a force for public good. As land that belongs to all of us, well-managed, well-designed, accessible public spaces offer residents a place where everyone — regardless of background, ability or need — can gather, get active or relax with friends.” That’s why NRPA partnered with the Willamette Partnership to create a series of tools designed to articulate the multiple health and equity benefits of parks and public spaces, especially those that use green infrastructure. From a policy guide to a communications toolkit, these materials will provide park and recreation professionals with an array of resources for building support for their work.
Communities Invest in Health Through Parks
We spoke with communities across the United States that are innovating around health, equity, green infrastructure and parks. Each local leader we spoke with was clear-eyed about the fact that parks and public spaces have not, historically, always been used as a force for good for everyone. Like housing or other community amenities, decades of policies influenced by racial biases and prejudices have led to stark inequities for low-income individuals and people of color.
Undoing these inequities takes time, resources and, above all, intentionality. The Willamette Partnership’s Bobby Cochran, an expert in the multiple benefits of parks, explains it this way: “For centuries in this country, we have designed communities to separate people, and parks have been a critical part of that. Whether we’re talking about segregated pools in the Jim Crow era or a lack of green space altogether in some communities today, parks have always had the capacity to make a community more or less equitable — depending on where they are, who can use them, what they look like and how they’re maintained.”
Following are lessons learned by local leaders across the country: people committed to righting longstanding injustices in their communities’ public lands and spaces. Along the way, they’ve realized the path forward lies in collaboration and forging new connections, formal and informal, among government, residents and the private sector alike.
Getting Serious About Equity
Park and recreation facilities have long been recognized for their role in building safer, healthier communities. But when cities prioritize these improvements in neighborhoods that have historically faced discrimination and neglect, the value goes even deeper. It is no longer just about planting new trees or converting a brownfield into green space; it becomes about creating new opportunities for justice and shared community prosperity.
Consider Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In recent years, Mayor Bill Peduto has made it a priority of his administration that everyone in the city should live within a 10-minute walk of a park — and city residents clearly agree. Last fall, voters passed a .5 mill property tax to create a fund for improving parks across the city, which the city council will administer.
Pittsburgh City Councilperson Erika Strassburger says, “Everyone is clamoring for the new money.” However, she sees a bigger purpose in distributing the funds. “We have to go further than just divvying this up equally across the city,” she says. “Because equality is not the same as equity, we need to use an equity lens, where the money is distributed according to need.”
Similarly, leaders in Denver, Colorado, make the point that a commitment to equity must be a through-line for the entire city. This means residents’ health and well-being are a responsibility that’s shared across municipal government. “Every department in Denver uses the lens of environmental and overall resident health,” describes Cinceré Eades, parks resiliency principal planner for the city. “And all our major agencies really take equity seriously. [Equity] is our top criteria when we are distributing funding across the city. That’s why Denver really promotes health among everything we do in our city, not just through one department or another.”
Getting Creative About Listening
For park and recreation professionals committed to promoting equity, it’s clear: to truly hear from residents of all walks of life requires more and different listening tools. It means getting creative about showing — not just telling — neighbors the benefits of proposed improvements. And, it means providing an array of avenues for feedback to ensure you’ve heard the full diversity of their opinions, experiences and needs.
Take Miami-Dade County, whose massive park and recreation system serves one of the most racially and ethnically diverse communities in the nation. When the agency’s leaders and staff set out to engage residents around needed improvements and green infrastructure on public lands, they knew they would need to use all the tools and strategies they could find.
As Park Planner Stephanie Cornejo explains, “We have communities where folks only speak Spanish or Creole.” Reaching these populations means recruiting and deploying multilingual staff. But the agency knows translators and multilingual staff alone are not enough to ensure they are truly hearing from residents of all backgrounds and walks of life.
“We’re taking meetings to them — not expecting them to come to us,” says Cornejo. “So that means sending staff to get feedback from church groups, out in the park, at PTA meetings.” And while park and recreation professionals provide a variety of online platforms and resources for people who can’t make it to a meeting, “we constantly remind ourselves that many communities we serve may not have access to laptops. So, we have a standing meeting in local recreation centers where we share information, no matter the size of the crowd. Because that’s how we show we’re listening.”
This kind of commitment to resident input is critical even when there isn’t a potential language barrier. Consider Louisville, Kentucky: with more than 16,000 acres of public lands, the local park and recreation agency manages one of the largest systems in the nation. But as Parks Administrator Bennett Knox acknowledges, the area has “a long history of allocating natural areas and programming inequitably,” with communities of color and low-income neighborhoods intentionally excluded.
But in June 2006, Louisville became one of the first cities in the country to establish a Center for Health Equity, recognizing that residents living just miles apart were experiencing dramatic differences in their health and quality of life.
For their part, the park and recreation department staff soon understood they needed to work differently if they were to walk the talk of engaging Louisville’s full range of communities. According to Knox, “We used to do standard public meetings at five or six o’clock on a Thursday, but we were getting the same people every time. We knew a lot of voices weren’t being heard in those meetings — whether it was parents who couldn’t get childcare or people who worked nights. We realized if we wanted people’s input, we needed to get out into the parks and ask them what they thought.”
Soon, staff and volunteers armed with clipboards hit the streets and playgrounds, asking neighbors for their input on what they needed and what they wanted to see. But the innovations didn’t stop there. In recent years, Louisville has partnered with the Canoemobile, a 24-foot voyageur canoe whose broad, steady bottom makes getting out on the water easy even for total novices. Its designers call the Canoemobile a “floating wilderness classroom,” which can be brought into communities where people may have never set foot off dry land.
Bringing Water Out into the Open
Given the health and quality of life benefits of parks and green spaces, many communities have been looking for ways to reclaim and restore public lands — especially those that have fallen into disrepair or disuse. Adding green infrastructure elements, like bioswales, ponds and rain gardens, can profoundly change the landscape of a neighborhood. Not only are these improvements more cost-effective than traditional gray infrastructure, but also, done right, they can become attractions in and of themselves.
Two city leaders in Atlanta know this for a fact. Deputy Commissioner for Watershed Management Todd Hill puts it this way: “For us, creating green infrastructure in parks and public spaces was just such an obvious win-win. We saw that partnering with parks and rec could help us better manage stormwater, create amenities for residents and save taxpayer money. As the old saying goes, the benefits are endless.”
This is why the city’s park and recreation department partnered with watershed maintenance to convert a section of its Historic Fourth Ward into a five-acre park with a sprawling pond as its centerpiece. Originally, city planners had thought to install another concrete tunnel to manage frequent floods. But once the two agencies joined up with local residents and environmental advocates, the plan to create a new park was born. Now, the area once dominated by industrial blight is home to native plants, sculptural installations and winding paths that arc over the pond’s surface.
Parks Commissioner John Dargle sums it up: “If it hasn’t hit people now, they need to know — collaborating between agencies to solve community problems is the new normal. Park and recreation departments can be at the forefront of showing how we can work across departments to activate spaces and places that everyone of all backgrounds, ages and abilities can enjoy.”
Catherine Zietse of the park and recreation department in Grand Rapids, Michigan, notes bringing water into the open has yet another benefit for cities. “It instills a passion for clean water and green space,” says Zietse, “especially in communities where people may never have seen a natural body of water.”
“We’d always focused on putting things below ground,” agrees her colleague, Project Manager Karie Enriquez. “Residents weren’t used to seeing creeks or streams. But we knew if we created features that could bring water above ground, we could use it as an educational opportunity.”
Collaboration and Systemic Change
Denver’s Cinceré Eades explains that when she first started with the city, Public Works and the park department weren’t working together to blend missions to create multiple benefits for communities. But in 2012, when the city launched its green infrastructure program, that began to change. “We were able to broaden the discussion and create more collaborative ways to work together,” says Eades.
Today, Eades sees a very different picture and advises other communities to make the effort to have those conversations, even if they take some work to get off the ground. “They think differently than I do,” she says. “So if you mention a challenge you’re having in front of a planner, you never know what they might be able to do to help. When we brainstorm together, those conversations can lead you to amazing things.”
The future of equitable communities, great parks and healthy residents clearly lies dramatically in increasing collaborative efforts like this one. But true systemic change requires more than individual communities’ efforts alone. For Schrass, bringing green infrastructure and its many benefits to scale involves “tackling issues that are really rooted in policy.”
“A single project is great for the area where it’s located,” says Schrass, “but for us to really create the park systems and communities we want to see — beautiful, healthy and resilient — it needs to happen in every park, in every community, on the roadways, private land, other types of infrastructure. And that only comes when we identify the necessary policy changes, advocate and see them implemented.”
Willamette Partnership’s Barton Robison, partner, health and outdoors, envisions a similar future. “Looking ahead, I’d like to see a movement of cities looking at health outcomes and intentionally deciding to make communities more equitable.” Within that future, Robison sees “park agencies as leaders within local government in centering community decisions around health and equity. If we did that, we would make a lot of progress removing systemic barriers.”
For more information about the work NRPA is doing to create tools to promote parks and green infrastructure as vital to improving community health and well-being, please visit our website.
Beth Jacob is Principal at Blue Stocking Strategy.